Unity (V): The Ecumenical Councils

By Ron Halbrook

This study concerns what we call church history. It cannot be a textual study of scripture by the very nature of the case. The Bible never recorded or envisioned what men call “ecumenical councils.” They are not found in the First Century Church. There is no command for them, no approved precedent, no necessary implication. They are the creation of men under the influence of a working of error, the spirit of lawlessness.

The theory behind ecumenical councils has always drawn on Acts 15, the so-called Jerusalem council. But the “Jerusalem council” was not a representative council called by “representative men.” It did not meet to vote any doctrine in or out of existence. When men came from Jerusalem leaving the impression that inspired men there approved of their false teachings, Paul and Barnabas left Antioch for Jerusalem. While it is true the Antioch brethren “determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question,” it is also true and of utmost importance that Paul later explained, “I went up by revelation” (Acts 15:2; Gal. 2:2).

While free discussion and open study was allowed at Jerusalem, none of this had a bearing on Paul or any other inspired man in so far as “helping” determine what he believed about the matters at issue. Paul went, not to find out what he should believe and preach, but to communicate “unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:2). What he preached was exactly what Peter and the other inspired men preached; this was publicly demonstrated (Gal. 2:6-9). The inspired men preached exactly what the Holy Spirit directed, before and after the Jerusalem meeting. The false teachers were debated and defeated by the power of truth, not by a vote of 125 yeas and 124 nays (Acts 15:6-21; Gal. 2:3-5).

Letters were written from Jerusalem by the direction of the Holy Spirit-the first inspired letters we know anything about during the First Century. The letters carried the stamp of divine inspiration, not of human wisdom: “And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting …. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you . . . these necessary things . . . .” (Acts 15:23-31).

Councils never did determine divine truth in the first place. It was determined from eternity in God Himself. Men, vessels of clay, were entrusted with the riches of divine truth, which they spoke under miraculous guidance of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). But furthermore, that truth was revealed and declared in all its fulness in the First Century, according to the promise of Christ (Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 13:8-10; Jas. 1:25). Therefore no council after the First Century could have any new truth to offer. When bishops of the Second and Third Centuries began meeting in local areas and synods, they often repeated this formula, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . .” But the Holy Spirit did not call these councils nor speak through them. The phrase was pirated! When men made such claims (and do so today), it was the working of Satan with all deception of unrighteousness. It is iniquity. There is not a particle of justification for it in the law of Christ. “Every one who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4).

If it be claimed that such councils met simply for the mutual edification of those who gathered, the deception is revealed by the council’s own constant claims, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit . . . .” They claimed divine authority for their deliberations and decrees; they did not apologize for their boldness then, as some of their self-appointed apologists may do today.

Why study all this if it is unauthorized by God’s Word? (1) To see the fulfillment of Bible prophecy, such as 2 Thess. 2, 1 Tim. 4, and 2 Tim. 4. (2) To better understand the spirit of lawlessness-its progressive nature, its destructive nature, its pride, its methods, its unlimited claims when it has its way, etc. This will help us recognize and oppose such a spirit. It should make us appreciate the wisdom and love of God’s warnings. (3) To gain insight into a traditional approach to unity that has been here many centuries and is still current. (4) The reader will discover many other uses of such historical study, according to his own interests and needs. Man is a creature of history and of interest in history.

The term ecumenical means universal or general; it strongly suggests unity. Ecumenical councils are universal councils, those which represent the universality and oneness of the church . . . supposedly. Some historians would include councils we omit, and omit some we include. Our study does not pretend to be exhaustive, but will try to be complete enough to give the reader solid information and valid impressions about four different periods in the development of councils. In the next few lessons we will view the “First Ecumenical Councils (300-900 A.D.),” then “Medieval Councils of the Western Church (1000-1300 A.D.),” next “Renaissance Councils (1400-1520),” and finally “Reformation-Age Councils (1521- ).”

The source materials we have used for the most part represent three divergent points of view: (1) a Restoration view by John F. Rowe, A History of Reformatory Movements, 9th ed. (Reprint at Rosemead, California: Old Paths Book Club, 1957): (2) a Roman Catholic view by Francis Dvornik, The Ecumenical Councils (New York: Hawthorn Books Publ., 1961); (3) and a Protestant view by Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill (eds.), A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948, 2nd ed., being Vol. I of A History of the Ecumenical Movement (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1967) along with the companion volume by Harold E. Fey (ed.), The Ecumenical Advance 1948-1968, being Vol. II of A History of the Ecumenical Movement (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1970). For convenience when we wish to indicate a source, we shall simply give the author and page number.

Since the councils represent an effort at unity, we shall try to indicate what new tools, ideas, or concepts emerge in each period of the council’s development.

First Ecumenical Councils (300-900 A.D.)

Major Contribution or Characteristic in Approach to Unity: In discussing the rise of the episcopate as an office developed after the New Testament period, William Ramsay said, “The Imperial idea was in the air” (W.M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire Before A.D. 170, p. 367). It was still in the air, in people’s thinking on the subject of unity, in the years from 300 to 900 A.D. The Church accommodated itself to the guidance of the emperors. They were in effect priest-emperors who saw themselves as the guardians of Church faith and unity, or who assumed the priest-emperor role for political reasons. They pursued unity by adapting Roman legislative procedures to the needs of general councils of bishops. Lesser synods of bishops had already been utilizing such procedures. The letters of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, reveal that the

“gatherings of bishops gradually modeled themselves on the rules under which the sessions of the Roman Senate was held.

The presiding bishop assumed the role of the Emperor or of his representative in the Senate. He used the same words for the convocation of the Council as were used in the imperial summons for the meeting of the Senate; and the conduct of debate, the interrogations of the bishops, and their responses also imitated the procedure of the Senate . . . . There was nothing unusual in this development. The meetings of the local senates or municipal councils in the provincial capitals were also modeled on the procedure followed by the Roman Senate, and this procedure was thus familiar to the bishops, who were Roman citizens” (Dvornik, p. 10).

When Emperor Constantine called the Nicean Council of 325, he

“convoked the bishops to the Council as he used to summon the senators to their meetings. The bishops obtained the senatorial privilege of traveling at public expense and using the official stage post, which was wen organized in the Roman Empire. As in the Senate, the problems to be decided were first debated by the most prominent bishops and the Emperor, in private meetings . . .

. . . “The Emperor himself presided over sessions of the Council. In the place of the statue of Victory, which stood In the front of the presidential tribune in the Roman Senate, the Bible was placed between the bishops and the Emperor. As in the Senate, the Emperor explained why he had convoked the Council and the subject the bishops had to discuss before making their definition. Then followed the individual Interrogation of the bishops, who made known their views” (Dvornik, pp. 14-15).

The age of Nicaea was characterized “by endless division” and “by endless efforts for the restoration of unity.” Meetings, writings, and compromises were utilized in search of successful methods. “But above all others, the means by which the Church in the Roman Empire sought to recover its own lost unity was the Ecumenical Council”-“an invention not of the Church but of the State …. The Council was a Council of the Church, but it was also the Emperor’s Council” (Rouse and Neill, p. 11).

Thus, between 300 and 900 A.D., unity was sought through general councils of bishops convened by the emperors of the civil empire. The role of the Roman bishop, or pope, grew more important in the latter half of this period; but the emperor was supreme over Church and State. Seven early councils are now considered ecumenical, i.e. representative of the church universal at work.

Council of Nicaea, 325

This council announced, in opposition to the Arians, that the relation of the Father to the Son is homoousios (consubstantial; same substance, nature, essence). It was decided that “Easter” should always be kept on a Sunday. The development of Church organization in keeping with the civil divisions of the Empire was approved. Other decisions were made and the Nicene Creed issued. Emperor Constantine called and presided at this council; he said, “For whatever is decided in the holy councils of the bishops must be attributed to the divine will” (Dvornik, p. 17).

Council of Constantinople, 381

The semi-Arians would concede only that the Father and the Son were homoiousios (similar in nature). Constantius, son of Constantine, called several synods of bishops to promote semi-Arianism, including Antioch in 341, Sardica in 343, Sirmium in 351, Arles in 353, Milan in 355, Sirmium again in 357 and again in 358, Rimini in 359, and Seleucia in 359. To further confuse things, Pope (the title is Dvornik’s) Julius I raised the question of what really validates a council’s decisions. This is all mixed up with the Arian controversy, but Julius did not think the Emperor’s calling a council necessarily validated its decisions. He argued that synodal decisions are not “general and binding” unless recognized by “the whole Church” (Dvornik, p. 19). As the Arian struggle continued, discussion on the nature of the Holy Spirit arose.

Finally, Emperor Theodosius the Great convoked the Council of Constantinople in 381 to try to create some order in all the confusion and continued division. The main results were a decision affirming the divine nature of the Holy Spirit and one recognizing the primacy of the church at Rome in certain matters.

Council of Ephesus, 431

Emperor Theodosius II called this council. The main doctrinal concern was in declaring the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, which had become another point of controversy and speculation. In terms of church centers of power, which were becoming more and more important, this council was involved in a struggle between the school of Antioch and the school of Alexandria; the Emperor in Constantinople tried to effect mediation.

The Council of Ephesus in 449 must be included here, though it is slighted as the “Robber Synod” because the heretical Monophysites controlled it. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus, used “the great resources of his patriarchate” to get Emperor Theodosius II to call this council (Dvornik, p. 26). The council declared that the divine nature of Christ was absorbed by the human nature; therefore, there was just ONE nature (MONOphysite view). It is said that Dioscorus not only used unscrupulous means to have the council called, but that he also utilized fanatical supporters and imperial police to terrorize the assembly.

Council of Chalcedon, 451

Roman bishop Leo I got Emperor Marcian to convene the Council of Chalcedon. It affirmed that there were two natures in the one man Jesus Christ, thus denying the Monophysite position. Emperor Marcian was openly acclaimed as “Priest-emperor” and the power or position of Constantinople in the church was more fully acknowledged. Later, Emperor Zeno (474-91) issued a creed compromising with the Monophysites. This Henoticon or “Band of Union” was declared imperial law. “Pope” Felix III declared the “Band of Union” invalid, urging the decision at Chalcedon as the basis of unity.

Council of Constantinople, 553

Emperor Justinian condemned certain writings as a concession to irate Egyptian Monophysites. But the bishops insisted he should not issue religious edicts without conferring with them. So a council was called, which in turn simply confirmed the action Justinian had already taken.

Council of Constantinople, 680

So little was settled by these councils that every effort to put out one fire seemed to start a dozen more. The Monophysite controversy continued and new efforts were made to settle it. For instance, Patriarch Sergius persuaded Pope Honorius to issue a compromise creed, Ekthesis, stating Christ had only one will (Monothelite view). This patch did not hold long; more controversy between succeeding popes, emperors, and patriarchs followed. Finally, Emperor Constantine IV called the council of Constantinople in 680 to pull the feuding empire back together. The council condemned the Monothelite compromise.

The Council of Constantinople in 754 must be noted here, though certain parties certainly will not “recognize” it is ecumenical! In 726, Emperor Leo III issued an edict banning images (icons) as equivalent to idols. This is called the iconoclast view. The Council of Constantinople in 754 not only confirmed the Emperor’s decree, but also excommunicated the anti-iconoclasts.

Council of Nicaea, 787

The iconoclast issue remained unsettled for many years, and finally Empress Irene got the support of the Patriarch and the consent of the Pope to call a council “that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more” (to borrow Balaam’s words to Balak’s messengers in Num. 22:19). The party that lost out in a council could always bide its time, increase its influence, and have another council called to see “what the Lord will say . . . more!” The Council of Nicaea in 787 reversed the position of the Council of Constantinople of 754. Indeed, the Lord did have more to say.

Still the iconoclast debate continued for another fifty years. Charlemagne in the West and various emperors in the East maintained their iconoclast views. “Image worship” was generally restored in 842-3 by Empress Theodora. “The defeat of iconoclasm promoted the production of icons, representations of Christ and his Saints, and these became a characteristic feature of Byzantine art” (Dvornik, p. 39).

At least two more important councils met before the year 900. Emperor Basil I called the Council of Constantinople of 869 in an effort to gain Roman support. The Emperor in Constantinople and the Pope in Rome were able to scratch one another’s backs. By means of this council, the Roman Pope cooperated with the Emperor in removing Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople. Basil gained Roman support; the Pope strengthened his primacy.

The Roman and Greek Churches differed socially, politically, and religiously on many issues; they were drifting further and further apart. Through the Council of Constantinople in 879, the Roman and Greek Churches agreed to a sort of unity in diversity, recognizing that neither was likely to succeed in dominating the other. (And apparently the Lord had more to say about poor Photius, for the council reinstated him!) Though this was called the “Council of Union,” it was the last Eastern synod to which the Roman Pope sent legates. The two Churches grew further. apart, especially when the Saxon King Otto I (962) restored “the Western Roman Empire.” He took control of both secular and spiritual affairs; obviously, his background differed from both the Roman and Greek.

Truth Magazine XXI: 41, pp. 649-652
October 20, 1977